Waking Up by Sam Harris – Book Review


man sitting on cliff during sunrise

Best for: 

Waking up is best for those with experience in meditation, psychology, and study of consciousness who want to deepen their understanding of the mind. Also those without serious attachments to religion or a particular type of spirituality. 

Difficulty to digest:

Fully grappling with the concepts and vocabulary in this book is fairly difficult. Without a scientific background and previous experience in meditation or examining consciousness, this book will likely take a lot of time to unpack.

Key Insights:

Waking Up by Sam Harris is an exploration of the mind, consciousness, spirituality, neuroscience and meditative practices. Harris assumes a level of study and familiarity in readers which may be too heady for beginners in any of these realms. If, however, you can digest the concepts, there are many interesting and insightful points to consider.

While somewhat difficult to parse overall, the book contains many studies, examples, and thought experiments to help reduce the cognitive burden. While no background is explicitly expected, the book is much more approachable when familiar with the general concepts. Otherwise claims may seem grand or unfounded, where there’s actually a body of research to draw from. Here are a few of the main themes:

Waking Up: Exploring Consciousness

Waking Up focuses on consciousness, what it is, and what that means to us as individuals. While we generally take consciousness for granted, spending time closely examining it produces surprising considerations. Why do we have consciousness? What purpose does it serve? How do we create thoughts?

Harris doesn’t answer these questions, as much as provide a full tour of their mystery and implications. At its roots this exploration is spurred on by contemplating what creates a good life. Can we go beyond fleeting moments of pleasure? By default, life is essentially a series of wanting and not wanting, dominated by wanting. I’m hungry, I want to eat. This tastes good! I ate too much, I want my stomach to stop hurting. Is there a better option?

This line of inquiry forces a hard look at consciousness and the underlying science. Harris mentions Kahneman’s system one and system two (Thinking Fast And Slow Review Here), essentially saying many mental processes happen outside consciousness. Too much information comes in to process it all. What’s important for us, however, is consciousness, since that’s all we experience. 

Waking Up also discusses the neuroscience which underlies consciousness, which by all appearance is tied completely to the brain. This is made especially apparent in experiments where the corpus callosum is split. Studies around this experience show two opposing minds are created with separate intentions, desires, and actions. Harris poses a difficult question, where would ‘I’ go if this happened to me? While many pieces are missing, the book is optimistic science can eventually unravel the truths behind consciousness. 

Meditation & Mindfulness: Improved Well-Being

Besides inquiry into the depths of consciousness, Harris also examines the original question, how do we improve well-being? Using conscious experience as the base, he settles on meditation and mindfulness as two of the most powerful tools for shaping experience. 

Harris shares his extensive experience with meditation and lists the many associated benefits. A regular practice helps us accept experiences, handle dissatisfaction, become more grateful and generally move the mind toward health. Thinking without thinking causes all sorts of problems. Knowing we’re thinking and training the mind allows us to hijack thoughts and improve mental, physical, and social experiences. We gain the ability to guide our attention, which dictates our experiences. This is far more important for happiness than conventional measures of success.

Waking Up includes a few short sections detailing how to meditate and other mindfulness practices. While some of these explorations are better with background experience, others are simply entry points for the fully initiated. Sharing some tools at full depth requires outside, intense meditation training. 

Illusion Of The Self

A relatively large conceptual part of the book is the idea our sense of self is an illusion. This is an extremely difficult idea to grasp. It’s completely unintuitive and though Harris tries a number of ways to explain his position, fully understanding what he means is difficult. Still, many varied attempts are made, which increases the odds of the message landing at some point in the book.

The argument boils down to this; consciousness is a separate element than sense of self. We don’t need an “I” to be conscious and our experience doesn’t demand having a sense of self. This is the difficult statement Harris works to decompose. This is the difficult statement Waking Up attempts to unwind meaningfully.

Luckily, Harris provides a number of interesting thought experiments. For example, who are we talking to or informing when thinking? That looks good is a thought we already know, so why is there an associated internal monologue in consciousness? Who is having the thoughts? 

Another angle he takes is showing that identity and sense of self are largely malleable within the brain. For example, someone with complete amnesia has no memories to reconstruct their identity. They cannot recognize themselves or their past in any meaningful way yet still have a sense of ‘I’. Their consciousness exists without history, so what is it that “I” really means in this context, besides whatever impulses and thoughts the brain decides to produce?

Discovering The Illusion

A couple other examples used are that the sense of self is much like the visual blind spot. It’s hard to know it exists until you do the exercises which prove its existence. Another framing is the reflection through a pane of glass. You can look through the glass or see the reflection based on your focus. It’s hard to see what’s reflecting when only looking through the glass. The explanations here are weaker than those in the book, as the arguments and explanations are highly nuanced. They must be read in full to get the proper experience.

Harris also mentions a few times through the books that psychedelics can forcefully open this insight in the brain. While not explicitly recommended, he mentions it as perhaps the fastests way to realize the sense of self is an illusion. He also covers some of his own experiences with psychedelics, their history, and how it related to meditation as a tool for unlocking the mind and improving experience. 

Spirituality Without Religion Or Paranormal Explanation

The last major theme in Waking Up is experiencing spirituality without religion or the paranormal. He explains religion has useful tools and insights muddled in with other dangerous and harmful ideas.His ideal is a middle path between hard research and the unknown, but sticking to what seems logical. 

Harris devotes space to the danger of blindly following gurus with paranormal claims. Blind adherence and devotion to meditation gurus has historically allowed a subset to become bad actors and abuse their power. Waking Up includes several of those stories, noting that insights into spirituality and consciousness do not create automatic enhancements in morality. He also heavily criticizes those using near death experiences as proof of an afterlife of greater consciousness. 

Overall Opinion

Waking Up is relatively short, but delivers a multitude of deep, interesting concepts. This is not a casual read, though most people can probably trudge through it. Waking Up best fits those with deep interest in meditation, the mind, and consciousness while also being able to stomach strong criticisms of ideas like religion.

Other considerations:

When Sam Harris finds an idea, person, or group, to be illogical or immoral, he holds nothing back. Throughout this book, religion is often the target of these scathing criticisms. For the more religious, prepare to stomach many of these arguments, even though they aren’t the main thrust of the book. 

This book aims at exploring and explaining relatively difficult concepts. Many of them are difficult to digest without previous experience. The illusion of the self, particularly, is extremely hard to understand and digest. Harris does his best to ease readers into the concepts, but complete beginners are likely to encounter many gaps. The book should still be useful, just know it takes time to unpack all the nuances. 

Applicable Content:

  1. Thinking without thinking leads us into acting without realizing what we’re actually doing. How can you cultivate more awareness of your thoughts?
  2. Exploring consciousness can unlock many interesting insights. Sit in silence with your thoughts for a moment. Where do you think they’re coming from?
  3. Meditation is touted as one of the best ways to train our minds, but other inlets to mindfulness exist. How often do you intentionally train your brain to be more present and accepting?

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